Anda di halaman 1dari 10

Reckless Endangerment:

President Trump and the

Use of Military Force
By Peter Juul and Ken Gude May 1, 2017

During his first 100 days in office, it has become clear that President Donald Trump
views military force as his primaryif not onlyforeign policy tool. From a botched
special operations raid in Yemen to a cruise missile strike against an Assad-regime
airfield in Syria, Trump has proven more than willing to order Americas armed forces
into action. Moreover, his administrations proposed hard-power budget cuts U.S.
State Department funding by more than one-quarter to help pay for a $54 billion
increase in military spending.1

President Trumps reliance on military force at the literal expense of Americas other for-
eign policy tools is bad policy. No U.S. foreign policy failure this century has been due
to insufficient military power. Having chosen to buy more ammunition rather than fully
fund the Department of Statesomething his own secretary of defense, James Mattis,
advised against when he served as the commander of American forces in the Middle
EastTrump is painting America into a dangerous corner.2 In crisis situations, he will
be faced with a stark choice between using military force or backing down.

Making this situation worse is the president himself. Mercurial in nature and largely igno-
rant when it comes to complex foreign policy issues, President Trump does not appear to
have any method at all to govern the use of force and lacks a clearly articulated end goal
for the use of force. As a result, Trump has failed to articulate coherent reasons for his
decisions to use forcenot even in his head-spinning policy reversal in Syrialeaving
his national security team unable to speak with one clear public voice on these decisions.

At the same time, President Trump has failed to nominate or appoint the officials neces-
sary to run the State Department and much of the Pentagon, preferring instead to hand
difficult diplomatic tasks to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.3

Taken together, President Trumps impulsive attitude toward the use of force and his
demotion of diplomacy significantly increase the chances that the United States or its
allies will be drawn into armed conflict by accident or miscalculation. With no clear
foreign policy approach in sight, an erratic commander in chief has put the United States
in a strategically dangerous position without precedent.

1 Center for American Progress | Reckless Endangerment: President Trump and the Use of Military Force
Lessons from Trumps first 100 days

The dangers inherent in President Trumps reliance on military force have become
clear over the course of his first 100 days in office. Beyond overseeing ongoing military
campaigns in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, Trump has authorized or threatened force on
numerous occasions in or against a number of countries since taking office:

Yemen: Trump authorized a botched special operations raid in late January that left a
Navy SEAL and several civilians dead.4 His administration also discreetly escalated the
American air campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in early March.5 In
addition, Secretary Mattis has requested authorization to give greater military assis-
tance to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen.6

Syria: Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against an Assad-regime airfield in retali-
ation for the regimes April 4 sarin nerve agent attack on civilians. The week before
the sarin attack and American retaliation, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S.
Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley both stated that the United States no
longer sought Assads removal from power, sending a mixed signal at best.7

Somalia: Trump eased Obama-era restrictions on the use of force in Somalia, giving
military commanders more freedom of action against the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Sha-
bab terrorist group.8 Dozens of American soldiers have since deployed to Somalia on a
mission to train and equip the Somali National Army.9

North Korea: In response to Pyongyangs continued development of ballistic mis-

siles and nuclear weapons, the Trump administration has threatened to use force
against North Korea, either to pre-empt or retaliate for a missile or nuclear weapons
test. Vice President Mike Pence, for instance, proclaimed that the era of strategic
patience is over during a recent trip to South Korea, while after North Koreas
early April missile test, Secretary Tillerson declared, The United States has spoken
enough about North Korea.10

Taken together with policies designed to loosen restrictions on U.S. military action,
these early decisions by the Trump administration to use or threaten force reveal a set
of disturbing and dangerous policymaking patterns. So far, these patterns fall into four
major areas of concern.

Demoting diplomacy

President Trumps reliance on the military as his primary foreign policy tool should come
as no surprise. His budget director, Mick Mulvaney, characterized the Trump administra-
tions first budget outline as a hard-power budget, and that was done intentionally.11 That

2 Center for American Progress | Reckless Endangerment: President Trump and the Use of Military Force
budget would cut the State Departments baseline funding by 28 percent while increasing
military spending by $54 billiona figure larger than President Barack Obamas entire
$52.8 billion State Department budget, which included money for contingency operations
in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.12

Trumps budget serves as the clearest signal of his foreign policy priorities and his
lack of understanding about how America succeeds on the world stage. His personnel
policy, or lack thereof, is another sign. Most senior State Department positions remain
unfilled, and Secretary Tillerson has isolated himself from an increasingly demoralized
State Department bureaucracy.13 Tillerson himself has presided over what eminent
international relations scholar Robert Jervis calls a startling diminution of his own
position and perhaps the entire department that he heads.14 In the place of Americas
diminished diplomatic corps, Trump has turned to his son-in-lawand foreign policy
noviceJared Kushner to serve as a shadow secretary of state with a portfolio of pre-
posterous breadth, including Israeli-Palestinian peace, China, and Mexico.15

By deliberately demoting diplomacy and relying on military force as its primary foreign
policy tool, the Trump administration ties its own hands and paints the United States
into dangerous corners. In crisis situations such as the ongoing standoff with North
Korea over its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, the Trump adminis-
tration will find itself facing an unenviable choice between using force to back up its
bellicose rhetoric and backing down without achieving American objectives. If and
when President Trump chooses to use force, his administration will find itself unable to
connect military action to any broader political objective or strategic purpose without a
functional State Department. Worse, Trump will also end up making the United States
act alone rather than in concert with friends and allies thanks to his failure to use diplo-
macy to build and sustain coalitions.

Impulsive decision-making

President Trumps decision to launch a limited cruise missile strike against the Assad
regime in Syria came after more than a year of statements on the campaign trail and in
office that strongly suggested that Trump took little issue with President Bashar al-Assad
staying in power in Damascus and believed the United States had no reason to intervene
against him. His position was echoed by Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley in
the week before the April 4 attack. 16

Moreover, as a private citizen, Trump vehemently opposed President Obamas pro-

posed retaliatory strikes against the Assad regime when it used sarin nerve agent to kill
1,300 Syrians in August 2013.17 Similarly, candidate Trump exhibited a cavalier attitude
toward chemical weapons use, objecting that everyone goes crazy when Saddam
Hussein throws a little gas.18 The Iraqi dictator most notoriously used chemical weap-
ons against Iraqi Kurds at Halabja in 1988, killing as many as 5,000 civilians.

3 Center for American Progress | Reckless Endangerment: President Trump and the Use of Military Force
But after seeing images of children killed by sarin on television, Trump undertook
a dramatic policy reversal.19 In the space of a week, the Trump administration went
from accepting Assads continuation in power to launching 59 cruise missiles at one of
Assads airfields.

President Trumps late January authorization of a special operations raid in Yemen

provides corroboration of his casual attitude toward decisions to use force. Trump
reportedly authorized the raidin which a Navy SEAL and several civilians diedover
dinner with key national security advisers, as well as Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.20
He also reportedly heard the suggestion that President Obama would not have ordered
the raid as a reason to go forward.21

The use of military force is the most serious decision a president can make. But
President Trump gives every indication that he makes decisions, including the use
of force, based on his own impulses and emotions. No matter how experienced or
professional his foreign policy and military advisers may be, President Trump bears
ultimate responsibility for decisions to use force. His first 100 days in office show just
how dangerous his reckless decision-making process can be when it comes to issues as
grave as the use of force.

No clear strategy, message, or vision

Neither President Trump nor his national security team have put forward a coherent strat-
egy to justify the use or threat of force. This incoherence has been most clearly on display
in Syria and North Korea, where Trump and his advisers have almost always contradicted
one another when it comes to justifying American military moves. Such mixed messages
make it impossible for the administration to connect the use or threat of force to any ratio-
nal political or diplomatic objective. Making matters worse is the White Houses clear dis-
dain for diplomacya destructive dynamic that makes coercive diplomacy unworkable.

After the retaliatory attack against the Assad regime in Syria, for instance, Trump
administration officials struggled to put forward a coherent rationale for the presidents
decision. Secretary Tillerson appeared to suggest continuity in the administrations
Syria policy despite the strike, while Ambassador Haley and national security adviser
H.R. McMaster took a more forceful line against the Assad regime.22 White House Press
Secretary Sean Spicer went even further, suggesting that any attacks on civilians any-
where would be met with a military response.23 Only Secretary Mattis appeared to have
a clear sense of the strikes policy objectives, saying it was intended to deter Damascus
from further chemical weapons attacks.24

4 Center for American Progress | Reckless Endangerment: President Trump and the Use of Military Force
It is not clear whether President Trump shares the assessments of any of his senior
national security advisers. Neither Americas friends nor its adversaries can decipher
President Trumps intentions, and both are likely to miscalculate without a clear sense
of how the Trump administration will behave.

The Trump administrations threat to use force against North Korea over its ballistic
missile and nuclear weapons programs suffers from similar incoherence. Trump himself
threatened via tweet to properly deal with North Korea if China proved unable to do
so, while Vice President Pence claimed that the Syria missile strike and the use of the so-
called mother of all bombs in Afghanistan demonstrated the administrations willingness
to use force.25 At the same time, McMaster said that the United States would deal with
the North Korea problem short of armed conflict, so we can avoid the worst.26 Further
mixing these messages, the White House erroneously declared that it ordered the USS
Carl Vinson carrier strike groupcharacterized by President Trump as an armadato
the region, but the ship and its escorts were actually sailing in the opposite direction
before changing course only after several days and an embarrassing news story.27

But the lack of a clear approach to govern the use of force is not just apparent in these
high-profile cases. President Trump also quietly authorized an escalation of the air cam-
paign in Yemen, with American strike aircraft hitting more targets in the first week of
March than in any given year under President Obama.28 Moreover, the Trump adminis-
tration is contemplating providing increased support to a new United Arab Emirates-led
offensive against Iran-backed Houthi militants.29 However, the Trump administration
has failed to articulate any sort of strategy for these military moves in Yemen, along with
a similar relaxation of Obama-era restrictions on the use of force in Somalia. As a result,
the United States finds itself deepening its military involvement in Yemen without a
clear sense of what it aims to achieve through the use of force.

Without any discernable connection to political or diplomatic objectives, the use

of force risks becoming an end in itself for President Trump and his administration.
Combined with President Trumps reckless decision-making process, the lack of any
sort of strategy to govern the use of force also increases the probability that the United
States will wind up in an armed conflict through miscalculation or accident. Moreover,
President Trumps reliance on the use or threat of force without a semblance of a strat-
egy will put the United States in a series of dangerous and unenviable strategic positions
around the world, obliged either to use force to no apparent end or back down without
advancing American policy.

5 Center for American Progress | Reckless Endangerment: President Trump and the Use of Military Force
Legal questions

In support of its cruise missile strike in Syria, the Trump administration has taken
an incredibly expansive view of its authority under both domestic and international
lawa view that has drawn intense criticism from bipartisan legal experts. Although the
administration has released no formal legal opinion justifying the Syria cruise missile, it
has been reported that the Trump administration claims its actions are justified under
domestic law by the Article II authority of the president as commander in chief and
under international law to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction.30

The Trump administrations guidance on its domestic legal rationale for the missile
strikes claims, The President has the power under Article II of the Constitution to use
this sort of military force overseas to defend important U.S. national interests.31 This
rationale virtually eliminates any constraints on the presidents ability to initiate military
action at any time and for any reason. Jack Goldsmith, former director of the Office of
Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice during the George W. Bush administration,
wrote that consideration of national interests will always be present when the president
is considering military intervention. Taken aloneand they are all we have herethese
interests provide no practical limitation on presidential power.32

Equally worrying are the Trump administrations international law claims. The admin-
istration apparently argues that the strikes were justified and legitimate as a measure
to deter and prevent Syrias illegal and unacceptable use of chemical weapons.33 Marty
Lederman, a deputy assistant attorney general during the Obama administration, writes
that the Syria strikes violate Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, which requires
the U.S. and all other signatory states to refrain in their international relations from the
threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any
state.34 Marko Milanovic, vice president of the European Society of International Law,
agrees and adds the important point that [i]nternational law does not permit forcible
reprisals that would breach Article 2(4), even if the purpose of the reprisal is to induce
the other party to comply with its legal obligations.35

The Trump administration is claiming the power to take military action without con-
gressional authorization or approval from the U.N. Security Council or even a multi-
lateral alliance such as NATO. Trump is not even seeking approval, and he is acting in
circumstances so broad that it would be difficult to contemplate a scenario in which
domestic or international law would limit his use of military force. This is especially
alarming when viewed in the context of the Trump administrations dramatic escalation
of U.S. military engagement and the threats of military force in multiple theaters.

6 Center for American Progress | Reckless Endangerment: President Trump and the Use of Military Force
Recommendations and conclusion

President Trump seems unlikely to change his reckless and dangerous foreign policy
decision-making process. As a result, it will be up to members of Congress to do what
they can to restrain Trumps whims when it comes to the use of force. Even in the cur-
rent polarized political environment, it may prove possible to forge bipartisan consensus
on some of the following measures.

First, Congress can use the power of the purse to reject President Trumps draconian cuts
to the State Department budget. Conservatives in Congress such as Sen. Marco Rubio
(R-FL) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have already come out against the administra-
tions proposed cuts, making a bipartisan coalition to preserve the State Departments
budget more likely.36 But halting the administrations proposed budget cuts cannot force
President Trump to make the appointments necessary for functional diplomacy.

Second, Congress can use its oversight powers to investigate the Trump administrations
decisions to use force. Determining why President Trump reversed himself so dramatically
on Syria, for instance, could be an important topic for relevant congressional committees.
Unlike with cuts to the State Department budget, however, partisan polarization makes
real oversight of the Trump administrations foreign policy conduct less likelyas the
behavior of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) regard-
ing Russias involvement in the 2016 election makes clear.37 Still, it remains in the interest
of the country for concerned members of Congress to make the attempt.

Third, Congress can legally require the Trump administration to produce reports
on its policies toward various conflicts. At the height of the Iraq War, for instance,
Congress required the George W. Bush administration and the Government
Accountability Office to present regular benchmark reports on its strategy for the
conflict.38 Today, Congress could require the Trump administration to produce similar
reports on the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, for instance, or U.S.
military involvement in Yemens conflicts.

Finally, Congress can attempt to live up to its constitutional obligations and regulate the
Trump administrations use of force. Despite requests from President Obama to autho-
rize the use of military force against the Islamic State and efforts by Sen. Tim Kaine
(D-VA) to push an authorization in the Senate, Congress has failed to meet its constitu-
tional responsibilities in recent years.39 With President Trump delegating wide swathes
of functional authority to use force to military commanders and his administration
claiming expansive legal authorities, congressional authorization of military force has
become an even more important question. Even without a full-blown authorization for
the use of force against the Islamic State, Congress could place legal restrictions on the
use of force such as ruling out the use of conventional troops on the ground in Yemen.

7 Center for American Progress | Reckless Endangerment: President Trump and the Use of Military Force
In his first 100 days in office, President Trump has used or threatened force on numer-
ous occasions in ways that portend strategic hazards for the United States moving
forward. A presidential decision-making process driven by impulse and emotion, the
absence of a clear strategy or message to guide American actions, the demotion of diplo-
macy, and fundamental questions about the legality of his actions all increase the danger
that President Trump will blunder into an armed conflict due to miscalculation or
accident. For a president who clearly views military force as his primary foreign policy
tool, the patterns revealed by Trumps behavior in his first 100 days in office serve as an
ominous warning sign for American citizens and foreign leaders alike.

Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. Ken Gude is aSenior
Fellow with the National Security Team at the Center.

8 Center for American Progress | Reckless Endangerment: President Trump and the Use of Military Force

1 Russell Berman, President Trumps Hard Power Budget, 14 Robert Jervis, Rex Tillerson Might Be The Weakest Secretary
The Atlantic, March 16, 2017, available at https://www. of State Ever, Foreign Policy, March 10, 2017, available at
hard-power-budget/519702/. be-the-weakest-secretary-of-state-ever/.

2 Dan Lamothe, Retired generals cite past comments from 15 Parker and Wagner, Kushner has a singular and almost
Mattis while opposing Trumps proposed foreign aid untouchable role in Trumps White House.
cuts, The Washington Post, February 27, 2017, available
at 16 Labott, Gaouette, and Roth, US signals openness to Assad
wp/2017/02/27/retired-generals-cite-past-comments- staying put.
cuts/?utm_term=.83d75ac26aff. 17 Nicholas Fandos, Trumps View of Syria: How It Evolved, in
19 Tweets, The New York Times, April 7, 2017, available at
3 Ashley Parker and John Wagner, Kushner has a singular and
almost untouchable role in Trumps White House, The Wash- trump-syria-twitter.html.
ington Post, April 3, 2017, available at https://www.washing- 18 Paul Blake, Candidate Trump OK when dictator throws a
untouchable-role-in-trumps-white-house/2017/04/03/ little gas but strikes back as president, ABC News, April 8,
df4e7cf8-1897-11e7-855e-4824bbb5d748_story.html. 2017, available at
4 Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger, Raid in Yemen: Risky story?id=46656098.
From the Start and Costly in the End, The New York Times,
February 1, 2017, available at https://www.nytimes. 19 Jonathan Chait, Reagan Manipulated Television. Trump
com/2017/02/01/world/middleeast/donald-trump-yemen- Is Controlled by It, New York Magazine, April 16, 2017,
commando-raid-questions.html. available at
5 Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary, Trumps Ramped-Up html.
Bombing in Yemen Signals More Aggressive Use of Military,
Foreign Policy, March 9, 2017, available at http://foreign- 20 Schmitt and Sanger, Raid in Yemen; Ayesha Rascoe, U.S. military probing more possible civilian deaths in Yemen
yemen-signals-more-aggressive-use-of-military/. raid, Reuters, February 2, 2017, available at http://www.
6 Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan, Trump administration 15G5RX.
weighs deeper involvement in Yemen war, The Washington
Post, March 26, 2017, available at https://www.washington- 21 Cynthia McFadden, William M. Arkin, and Tracy Connor, Yemen Raid Had Secret Target: Al Qaeda Leader Qassim
weighs-deeper-involvement-in-yemen-war/2017/03/26/ Al-Rimi, NBC News, February 7, 2017, available at http://
7 Elise Labott, Nicole Gaouette, and Richard Roth, US signals
openness to Assad staying put, CNN, March 30, 2017, avail- 22 Zeeshan Aleem, The Trump administration seems to have
able at no coherent Syria policy, Vox, April 9, 2017, available at
8 Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt, Trump Eases Combat
Rules in Somalia Intended to Protect Civilians, The New York 23 Dan Mercia, Spicer on Syria: If you gas a baby or barrel
Times, March 30, 2017, available at https://www.nytimes. bomb, expect a response, CNN, April 10, 2017, available at
bat-rules-in-somalia-designed-to-protect-civilians.html. syria-barrel-bombs-gas/.

9 Ryan Browne, US sending dozens more troops to So- 24 U.S. Department of Defense, Press Conference by Secretary
malia, CNN, April 14, 2017, available at http://www.cnn. Mattis and Gen. Votel in the Pentagon Briefing Room, April
com/2017/04/13/politics/us-troops-somalia/. 11, 2017, available at
10 Merrit Kennedy, Pence Tells North Korea: The Era Of ence-by-secretary-mattis-and-gen-votel-in-the-pentagon-
Strategic Patience Is Over, National Public Radio, April 17, briefing-room/.
2017, available at
way/2017/04/17/524316419/pence-tells-north-korea- 25 Roberta Rampton and Sue-Lin Wong, Pence warns North
the-era-of-strategic-patience-is-over; U.S. Department of Korea of U.S. resolve shown in Syria, Afghan strikes, Reuters,
State, North Korean Missile Launch, Press statement, April April 17, 2017, available at
4, 2017, available at us-northkorea-usa-missile-idUSKBN17H0NL; Nicki Rossoll,
marks/2017/04/269465.htm. Trump will take action to end any North Korea threat to
US: top security adviser, ABC News, April 16, 2017, available
11 Berman, President Trumps Hard Power Budget. at
12 Carol Morello, State Departments 28 percent cuts
hit foreign aid, U.N. and climate change, The Wash- 26 David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, A Cuban Missile Crisis
ington Post, March 16, 2017, available at https://www. in Slow Motion in North Korea, The New York Times, April 16, 2017, available at
departments-28-percent-cuts-hit-foreign-aid-un-and- politics/north-korea-missile-crisis-slow-motion.html.
a58d4a988474_story.html. 27 Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt, Aircraft Carrier Wasnt
Sailing to Deter North Korea, as U.S. Suggested, The New
13 Anne Gearan and Carol Morello, Secretary of State Rex York Times, April 18, 2017, available at https://www.nytimes.
Tillerson spends his first weeks isolated from an anxious bu- com/2017/04/18/world/asia/aircraft-carrier-north-korea-
reaucracy, The Washington Post, March 30, 2017, available at carl-vinson.html.
secretary-of-state-rex-tillerson-spends-his-first-weeks-iso- 28 De Luce and McLeary, Trumps Ramped-Up Bombing in
lated-from-an-anxious-bureaucracy/2017/03/30/bdf8ec86- Yemen Signals More Aggressive Use of Military.
155f-11e7-ada0-1489b735b3a3_story.html; Julia Ioffe, The
State of Trumps State Department, The Atlantic, March 1, 29 DeYoung and Ryan, Trump administration weighs deeper
2017, available at involvement in Yemen war.

9 Center for American Progress | Reckless Endangerment: President Trump and the Use of Military Force
30 Marty Lederman, (Apparent) Administration Justifications 36 Tracy Wilkinson, Deep cuts in State Department budget
for Legality of Strikes Against Syria, Just Security, April 8, would meet with resistance, Los Angeles Times, February 28,
2017, available at 2017, available at
apparent-administration-justifications-legality-strikes-syria/. ington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-deep-cuts-in-
31 Josh Gerstein, Legality of Trumps airstrikes disputed,
Politico, April 7, 2017, available at 37 David Corn, How Devin Nunes Is Threatening the Constitu-
story/2017/04/donald-trump-legal-syria-military-strikes- tion, Mother Jones, March 29, 2017, available at http://www.
32 Jack Goldsmith, The Constitutionality of the Syria Strike probe.
Through the Eyes of the OLC (and the Obama Administra-
tion), Lawfare, April 7, 2017, available at https://www. 38 George W. Bush White House Office of the Press Secretary, Initial Benchmark Assessment Report on Iraq, Press release,
eyes-olc-and-obama-administration. July 12, 2007, available at
nea/rls/rpt/88195.htm; Government Accountability Office,
33 Lederman, (Apparent) Administration Justifications for Securing, Stabilizing, and Rebuilding Iraq: Iraqi Govern-
Legality of Strikes Against Syria. ment Has Not Met Most Legislative, Security, and Economic
Benchmarks, GAO-07-1195, Report to Congressional Com-
34 Marty Lederman, Why the strikes against Syria probably mittees, September 2007, available at
violate the U.N. Charter and (therefore) the U.S. Constitu- new.items/d071195.pdf.
tion, Just Security, April 6, 2017, available at https://www. 39 David Francis, John Hudson, and Molly OToole, Tim Kaine
constitution/. Thinks ISIS Fight Needs Congressional Approval, Foreign
Policy, July 26, 2016, available at http://foreignpolicy.
35 Marko Milanovic, The Clearly Illegal US Missile Strike in com/2016/07/26/tim-kaine-thinks-isis-fight-needs-congres-
Syria, Blog of the European Journal of International Law, sional-approval/.
April 7, 2017, available at

10 Center for American Progress | Reckless Endangerment: President Trump and the Use of Military Force